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Why not abolish honors classes for all grades?

By Marc Lanser

Proponents for abolishing honors classes in ninth grade at Harwood have put forth arguments enumerating a number of supposedly adverse effects that the present availability of such honors classes has on students "left behind" in regular classes, as well as those in the honors classes themselves. Such adverse effects include, but are not limited to, decreased self-esteem, low expectations by themselves and their teachers, lack of "role models" of high-achieving students in the same class and, most importantly, a substandard curriculum that closes rather than opens doors to future academic and employment opportunity. None of these purported adverse effects (except for the last) have been shown to result from homogeneous grouping (i.e., tracking) in any of the numerous studies going back more than 50 years. In contrast to the other mentioned adverse effects, it is taken as a given that the general (non-honors) curricula are woefully inadequate (otherwise the argument is moot). Such inadequacy has been well documented and is not limited to Vermont (e.g., results on international standardized tests). If the real problem is, therefore, that substandard curricula are being foisted on the non-honors general student population, then the remedy is straightforward: Redesign the curricula and realign teacher expectations in order to provide a rigorous and demanding education to average-ability and low-ability students. Such an obvious solution is not for discussion apparently, since I suspect the real motivation of the proponents advocating the abolition of honors courses is sociopolitical, not educational.

Contrary to the assertions put forth by the advocates of such action, the actual data supports the conclusion that advanced, accelerated classes have large benefits for high-ability students, while at the same time, "general" classes increase the self-esteem of low-ability students – the caveat being that all students be exposed to a challenging curriculum with engaging teachers that meets their needs. A benchmark meta-analysis by Kulik (1992) concluded that if the curricula for both honors and regular classes were the same, there was no effect on achievement, but that programs that were differentiated according to the aptitude of the enrolled group benefited students of both high and low abilities. These results directly refute proponents' claims that no one benefits from grouping, or that students in the lowest ability groups are harmed academically and emotionally by grouping.

In contrast to Kulik's findings, Slavin (1990) found that there were no significant positive effects of ability grouping for any program, with the exception of acceleration for the "gifted." However, Slavin, unlike Kulik, excluded from his analysis those programs which offered different curricula for different ability levels. This omission represents a significant flaw in Slavin's meta-analysis, since it has been repeatedly demonstrated that a rigorous, tailored curriculum is the most important factor in fostering academic accomplishment and engagement. Other studies show negative effects of ability grouping, but only when students in low-ability groups are taught by less able teachers, cover less content than higher ability classes, and consequently suffer from loss of motivation and self-image.

The data (not opinion) show conclusively that homogeneous ability grouping markedly benefits high-ability students in numerous ways and, to a lesser extent, benefits below-average and average students as well, provided that a rigorous approach is also applied to average students in accordance with their objectively documented abilities.

If proponents believe that eliminating honors classes in ninth grade would improve the educational experience for all students, then logically it follows that all honors classes, from 9th through 12th grade, should also be eliminated, since the adverse effects on non-honors students would not be expected to disappear as students move through high school. Though politically unacceptable, logic demands that advocates for such action either forthrightly propose elimination of all honors courses or explain the inconsistency of limiting it to the ninth grade. But why stop there? Why not eliminate all AP classes? The same considerations apply. Why not eliminate magnate schools, such as Stuyvesant HS or Bronx Science in NY, since the purported deleterious effects on average-ability students from such "extreme tracking" would not be expected to stop at the school's edge?

In addition to harming high-ability students, elimination of honors classes would have the unintended consequence of declining academic quality at Harwood, which is the exact opposite of what the advocates purport to desire. Other things being equal, what parent of a "high-ability" student would choose to enroll in such a school, if other alternatives were available (key word: "available")? Such a decline may be somewhat delayed at Harwood since alternatives are not readily available in the surrounding communities, but such is inevitable, particularly if all honors classes are abolished.

If the goal of the advocates for the abolition of ninth-grade honors classes is improvement in education, then they should simply demand more rigorous and demanding curricula for the average student. If however, as I strongly suspect, "social justice" or "educational equity" is the real goal, then they should demand nothing less than the abolition of all merit-based accelerated learning, honors classes included.

Lanser lives in Fayston.


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